Dr. Amisha Jha and Major General Walter Piatt were recently on Dan Harris’ podcast 10% Happier discussing the US military’s experiments with meditation practices. I’ve written about meditation and the military from a more personal experience previously.
I don’t think I was aware of the meditation study conducted on returning soldiers from MG Piatt’s (then COL) Brigade. As he put it, they were looking for something to help soldiers upon returning from repeat deployments. He is now the Director of Operations for the Army.
Dr. Jha and MG Piatt seem to be taking a measured approach to both the practical utility of meditation as it relates to the military and a realistic expectation to its likelihood (or unlikelihood) of being adopted. Dan Harris, for his part, hits the nail on the head on the challenges: a culture that might be too “macho” for something as ‘touchy-feely’ as meditation and the backlash from a segment of the population against “militarizing” mindfulness.
Listening to them talk, and seeing the trajectory of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness thus far, this all feels very similar to the introduction of the Modern Army Combatives Program (MACP). Initiatives in the Army take an immense amount of momentum to get going, and even more to make sustainable. We’re nearing two decades since MACP was introduced, and it still feels like a niche program in the Army. Integrating mindfulness training at scale in an Army of immense and growing demands will be exceptionally challenging, but not an unworthy cause.
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Around the time I started to transition out of the Army, I started to get very interested in “productivity.” I followed blogs like lifehack and 43 Folders. I kept reading articles about and by people like David Allen and Merlin Mann. I developed my own system for “getting things done” and have revised and revised over the years to get to where I am now (it’s still a monster, but it’s my monster). Somewhere along the way I came across Gretchen Rubin. I found her through her blog, The Happiness Project, which later became a best-selling book. In it, she describes her journey on finding happiness through self-experimentation. It’s a fantastic book which I eagerly read when it came out and have given as a gift a bunch of times.
Fortunately, Gretchen maintains her blog and posts pretty regularly. She frequently posts interviews with people in the field of whatever it is she is researching at the time. Right now, she’s writing a book on ‘habits.’ Back in February, she posted an interview with ABC news correspondent Dan Harris. Now, if you are a very close reader of this blog or you know me personally, then you are already aware of my fascination with early morning news television. Wherever I am, I’ll always watch the local news, mostly because it is often extremely awkward, and then if I’m around, I’ll stick around for the highly-polished national news. It’s hardly news anymore – it’s more like BuzzFeed – just a mashup of some news items with some celebrity stuff and viral videos. It’s supposed to wake you up, I guess.
I’m not reviewing the book here. I’ll just say that it was really good. Funny, well-written, and practically helpful. If you’re interested in meditation, mindfulness, or the drama that goes on behind the scenes at ABC news, you will enjoy the book. In it, he refers to the Marine Corps’ experiments with teaching meditation to marines as a way to make – better marines. For its part, the Army has embraced “resiliency” as not just a thing you should be, but an entire methodology for teaching and living (meditation in the classic, Buddhist tradition is not currently part of the instruction, though).
When I was going to college in New York, I learned about a guy named David Wagner who was offering free meditation sessions to veterans. At the time, I was organizing the City College Veterans Association and wanted to see what it was all about. Like Dan says in the book, meditation’s biggest problem is bad public relations. The stereotypical meditator is the touchy-feely hippy who is lost in his own world. There is probably no subculture of people that might be more skeptical of meditation than the military – with your “dip and velcro and all your gear.”
I met David in his Manhattan office. He was about my height, with a full beard and dark, wavy hair. He smiled widely as he greeted me, but wasn’t overly friendly. As we walked into his office, I looked around the room and saw a sticker that read “Fuck the Naysayers.” We sat down, and he excitedly shared with me a theory he had about war veterans, based on things he has read and his own study of meditation. I’m paraphrasing here – it’s been over five years since this conversation – but he explained that there is a deep inner understanding that meditation practitioners work to achieve through years of patient work. He spoke about Greek mythology and the notion of the warrior achieving enlightenment through combat. We discussed the overwhelming feelings that overtake a person the first time bullets fly overhead. His theory, is that at that moment, a person is fully present – which is one of the goals of meditation, after all. The fear and excitement of combat supercharges a person into the here and now by necessity. That soldier has touched that deep inside ‘thing’ for a moment, and then the adrenaline goes away and Dan’s ‘voice in the head’ comes back and takes over.
You know that half second of chest-constricting terror that happens when you see the demon’s faces for the first time in The Devil’s Advocate? That’s apparently how war feels, constantly. –@babyballs69
David believes that through meditation, veterans can recapture that feeling of being completely present – the exhilaration of combat (without the fear) through meditation, and ultimately, be a better person. I liked what he was saying, and it made sense. What I especially liked is that David wasn’t approaching help for veterans as a charity case to address PTSD – which I’ve seen over and over again when it comes to doing anything for veterans.
While meditation might help veterans with PTSD (I haven’t seen the research), David was more interested in using meditation as a way to build the next-greatest generation.
To put it plainly, his thought was that through the crucible of combat, veterans achieved something that most people will never achieve – a kind of self-enlightenment that was actualized, and then locked away, deep inside the body. Through meditation, that “thing” could be unlocked. The classes were free, so what did I have to lose?
I met with David over the course of a couple of months and began meditating. It was a frustrating process, because it takes real discipline and buy-in. Over those months, I sometimes meditated regularly and sometimes stopped for long periods of time. David was always nice about it when I said I hadn’t meditated in awhile, pointing out that if I looked at a chart of my life, I was still meditating a lot more than I had over the past twenty seven years. During that time when I was meditating regularly, I felt good, and strangely, it manifested itself in the gym – I was working out harder than ever.
In my last year at City College, I tried connecting more veterans with David and meditation. I pushed, but it was too hard a sell at the time and required a lot more energy from me than I could give to make it happen. It’s unfortunate, because I think David is really on to something. As Dan’s book points out, the research is there. Meditation is not just some lovey-dovey cosmic thing – it’s proven by science to improve a number of things. In Dan’s case, he claims to be at least 10% happier. Not a bad return on the investment. So, I leave this all here for you to pick through and think about. I know I’m convinced.
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